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ImpotenceA Cultural History$
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Angus McLaren

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780226500768

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226500935.001.0001

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When “Desire Refuses Service”

When “Desire Refuses Service”

Impotence in the Christian West

(p.25) [2] When “Desire Refuses Service”
University of Chicago Press

When deciding whether a marriage should be annulled on the grounds of the husband's impotence, fifteenth-century English church courts sometimes employed “honest women” to examine the man. Christians had to know whether or not a marriage had been sexually consummated. But, pondered celibate church doctors, what was consummation? Was it simple penetration? Or did it require emission? Might it even necessitate the wife's orgasm? Michel Foucault tartly observed that the pagans were too reserved to conduct such a full and intrusive discussion of conjugal rights, methods, and duties. Why then did the church ultimately so immerse itself in the messy discussion of impotence? Why did churchmen, at first embarrassed by the issue of male potency, eventually come police it? Some historians have suggested that a cultural shift occurred in the late Roman world, when sexuality became a topic of discussion in poetry and advice literature, as well as a privileged source of pleasure. Unlike the Jews, Christians lauded continence, celibacy, and life-long virginity.

Keywords:   impotence, marriage, consummation, penetration, emission, sexuality, Christians, celibacy, church doctors, virginity

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